Brussels, 27 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Top veterinary experts from the 15 EU member countries gathered in Brussels today for an emergency meeting on the spreading hoof-and-mouth epidemic.
The veterinary panel was expected to spend most of its time reviewing the complex arrangement of export embargoes on products and live animals.
To date, four EU countries have reported cases of the highly contagious disease. There have been over 600 cases in Britain, five in the Netherlands, two in France and one in Ireland.
The European Commission, which oversees the fight against the epidemic, has imposed blanket bans on the exportation of untreated meat and dairy products from Britain and Ireland. The veterinary committee meeting that started this morning is likely to recommend the imposition of similar bans on France and the Netherlands.
To root out the disease, EU has chosen the strategy of mass extermination of all animals affected by hoof and mouth or considered likely to have come into contact with it. This has led to the killing of hundreds of thousands of sheep, cattle, and pigs in Britain, and the army is now preparing a disused airfield for the burial of up to half-a-million carcasses.
EU officials continue to rule out mass vaccination, the only alternative to mass killings thought capable of stopping the spread of the disease.
Beate Gminder, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, today defended the practice of mass killings. She said vaccinations in even one member country would automatically lead to long export bans on EU meat and dairy products by third countries. This, she said, could cause serious long-term damage to the EU's agriculture sector.
"If we start not complying with international regulations pertaining to vaccination, we run the risk of [third-country export bans] on non-treated meat for years. This will also affect jobs, the employment of people and families. We must not forget that dimension. It's very serious for the people involved and we are trying to avoid long-term consequences for people who could be affected later."
EU experts say antibodies that develop in the blood of vaccinated animals make them indistinguishable from the carriers of the disease. This means that for export purposes vaccinated animals must be treated as infected. Since the EU operates as a single market without internal borders, large-scale vaccinations in one member country would automatically invalidate the Union' formal status as hoof-and-mouth-free.
The seemingly uncontrollable spread of the disease has led several EU member states to request permission from the veterinary panel for the vaccination of animals in zoos that could be at risk, among them elephants, giraffes, and antelopes. According to present rules, the infection of one animal would lead to the compulsory destruction of all other animals in close contact with it. Addressing the issue today, Gminder said it was not clear whether international regulations would permit selective vaccination of animals in zoos.
Overall, the EU seems to be fighting a losing battle. All major export markets for EU meat and dairy products have already imposed unilateral bans on them. Although an EU spokesman said today the bans by major markets like the United States, Russia, Egypt, and many candidate countries are considered to be "temporary," it is unlikely they will be lifted any time soon.